‘Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas’ looks at composers behind holiday songs

‘Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas’ looks at composers behind holiday songs

TORONTO — Canadian musician Steven Page grew up Jewish with Christian relatives on his father’s side, so when the holidays rolled around, they’d celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas — a.k.a. Chrismukkah.

“We never had a tree. That was like a dividing line in our family,” the former Barenaked Ladies frontman said in a recent phone interview from his home in Upstate New York.

“There was never a tree, but there were still stockings. We didn’t do the Chinese restaurant thing that a lot of other Jewish families do, because we always had somewhere to go for Christmas dinner.”

Page also recalls singing Christmas carols in choirs in elementary school.

“When you can go, ‘Oh, that song was written by a Jewish guy,’ it was always kind of a point of pride for us,” said the singer, who is set to resume a tour in the new year and is working on a new album.

“Then you realize that so many of these great American standards, holiday or otherwise, were written by Jewish composers.”

The new film “Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas,” debuting Dec. 3 on Documentary Channel, looks at how Jewish songwriters came to pen such Christmas standards as ”Have a Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and ”White Christmas.”

The film, which also airs Dec. 7 on CBC, is centred around a Jewish family gathering in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day — a tradition for many Jewish families.

Page is among the Canadian performers who drop in to the restaurant to give their own renditions of holiday standards. Experts including a musicologist, a priest and a rabbi explain the history of Jewish involvement in Christmas.

The Chinese restaurant in the film is Sea-Hi, said Oscar-nominated Toronto filmmaker Larry Weinstein, who directed the documentary. It’s where his Jewish family went on Christmas Day when he was growing up in Toronto. Like Page, Weinstein’s family also had Christmas stockings and he admits he believed in Santa Claus until he was about 11.

In many ways, the Jewish songwriters of the 1920s through the 1950s were perfect for penning yuletide tunes because they understood the holiday family sentiment and the Christmas story of being an outsider, said Weinstein.

“And an outsider who maybe idealizes what Christmas is all about,” he said. ”They don’t know about families being together and arguing or having a fight to the death over a wishbone.

“They see it as this very beautiful family time, and family meant so much to these people, especially the ones who had emigrated or their parents had been emigres…. Then of course very few of the songs do refer to the religious aspect.”

As the film explains, many Jewish composers wrote Christmas classics during or after the Second World War in New York, at a time when there were few opportunities for immigrants but songwriting was open to all. They wrote the tunes in a secular way that included everyone in the holiday.

Weinstein said he wasn’t able to get the rights to all the songs he wanted for the film.

“Sometimes there was a bit of a sinister reason why we couldn’t,” he said. ”Not the composers, because they had passed away, not their families.

“But the lawyers that held on to these estates simply were not interested in a film that brought up the fact that these Christian songs were written by Jewish composers. They thought that that couldn’t be good for the image of the song, that that might hurt the song. At least that’s the impression that we got.”

Page said Christmas songs help musicians find a common ground with their audience, yet writing a contemporary holiday tune is a challenge for many.

“I think because there’s so little irony that can be put into Christmas songs, so for something to be purely sentimental or joyful is harder for people to feel comfortable with,” said Page, who put out the 2004 Christmas album “Barenaked for the Holidays” with his former band.

These days the holidays also don’t seem to have the same “wide-eyed, naive innocence” of yore, said Weinstein.

“Certainly anything post-9/11, we’re just not the same. We’re not innocent and sweet, which is very sad to think about.”

“Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas” also repeats on Documentary Channel on Dec. 4, Dec. 24 and Dec. 25.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta is on pace to administer more than 300,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses per week, according to the provincial government. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
One million COVID-19 vaccine doses administered in Alberta

Alberta hit a milestone in the fight against COVID-19 this week. As… Continue reading

(Government of Canada)
Liberal MP caught stark naked during House of Commons video conference

William Amos, in Quebec, appeared on the screens of his fellow members of Parliament completely naked

Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre’s expansion project is still a high priority, says Alberta Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Interior work will start this year on Red Deer hospital project, says infrastructure minister

‘We are committed. This is a top priority,’ says Presad Panda

Even with recent restrictions due to rising COVID-19 variant case levels, about 95 per cent of businesses are open in Alberta, said Premier Jason Kenney. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Consistent pandemic policy has helped Alberta, premier says

Alberta fatality rate lower than Canadian average

Lethbridge Police Chief Shahin Mehdizadeh speaks during a news conference in Lethbridge, Alta., on Wednesday, March 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Rossiter
‘Right path:’ Lethbridge police release improvement plan in wake of controversies

‘Right path:’ Lethbridge police release improvement plan in wake of controversies

People play on the rocks on a calm Lake Ontario near Humber Bay during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on April 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Canadian emissions to make up outsized portion of what climate can bear: study

Canadian emissions to make up outsized portion of what climate can bear: study

In this Monday, Feb. 1, 2021 file photo, emissions from a coal-fired power plant are silhouetted against the setting sun in Independence, Mo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Charlie Riedel
Canadian emissions to make up outsized portion of what climate can bear: study

Canadian emissions to make up outsized portion of what climate can bear: study

People wear face masks as they walk in a park in Montreal, Sunday, April 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes
Premier Francois Legault softens rules for outdoor mask use following criticism

Premier Francois Legault softens rules for outdoor mask use following criticism

A empty classroom is pictured at Eric Hamber Secondary school in Vancouver, B.C. Monday, March 23, 2020. The Alberta government says schools in Calgary will move to at-home learning starting Monday for students in grades 7 to 12.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
‘Operational pressures:’ Calgary schools shift to at-home learning for grades 7 to 12

‘Operational pressures:’ Calgary schools shift to at-home learning for grades 7 to 12

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference during the COVID-19 pandemic in Ottawa on April 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Italian-Canadians to get formal apology for treatment during Second World War

Italian-Canadians to get formal apology for treatment during Second World War

Heartfelt messages are left on a table as people come out to mark International Overdose Awareness Day during a mass group naloxone training seminar at Centennial Square in Victoria, B.C., on Saturday August 31, 2019. nbsp;When British Columbia's provincial health officer declared an emergency into the overdose crisis five years ago, he said it was because those who died deserved more of a response. Since then, Dr. Perry Kendall says roughly 7,000 died unnecessarily. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
7,000 more overdose deaths since B.C. declared public health emergency in 2016

7,000 more overdose deaths since B.C. declared public health emergency in 2016

A vial of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine dose is shown at a facility in Milton, Ont., on March 3, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Carlos Osorio - POOL
Ontario sees vaccine supply issues, Ottawa keeps AstraZeneca on the market

Ontario sees vaccine supply issues, Ottawa keeps AstraZeneca on the market

Most Read